“Rumble Fish” is Coppola’s bleak, beautiful ode to hero worship

Rumble Fish Matt Dillon & Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish (Universal Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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“Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.”

Following the nightmarish shoot for Apocalypse Now, and the disaster of One From the Heart, it was fitting that Francis Ford Coppola would temporarily switch gears into something more understated with the gentle, melancholy The Outsiders. Coppola was so taken with Outsiders author S.E. Hinton’s work that halfway through shooting he optioned the rights for another one of her books, the lesser known Rumble Fish, choosing to remain in Tulsa to film it and using some of Outsiders cast, including Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Tom Waits, and daughter Sofia, still credited as “Domino.”

Though both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish are about lower class teens written off by society as miscreants and losers, and climax in a young person’s death (followed by a hopeful suggestion that change is possible), those are where the similarities end. While The Outsiders, despite its tragic elements, is sunlit gold, Rumble Fish is starkly black and white, lit like a film noir, the only bits of color reserved for aquarium fish, and the harsh flashing blue-red of police lights. With its long shadows and smoke constantly escaping from trash cans or manholes, even the daylight scenes are hard and cold, the only moments of beauty reserved for reflections of moving clouds in windows and chrome. The Outsiders is very much a period piece, set in the mid-1960s, but Rumble Fish doesn’t seem to exist in any real time or place. Given the set design it could be the 60s, but the clothes and hairstyles place it in the mid-70s, with a contemporary (for the time, at least) score by the Police’s Stewart Copeland. And yet, the teenage gang mythos that propels the story puts it solidly in the 1950s, the same universe as Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One.

Matt Dillon is Rusty James, layabout, delinquent, and would-be gang leader, although his “gang” only seems to consist of three other boys, one of whom, childhood friend Steve (Vincent Spano), really wants no part of it. Rusty James has no other goals in life but to be just like his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), a former actual gang leader who skipped town shortly after calling a moratorium on rumbles. The Motorcycle Boy has returned, however, both to Rusty James’ delight, and consternation, as it seems The Motorcycle Boy has no interest in going back to the good ol’ days of fighting people just because you don’t like the way they look, or because it’s Tuesday, or you have nothing better to do.

Rumble Fish (Universal Pictures)

Following Diner, Rumble Fish marked Mickey Rourke’s second major film role, and though it’s become a bit of a cliche to mention this by now, he is extraordinarily good-looking here, even with a haircut that looks like it was performed with a weed whacker. Playing someone who’s perhaps read a little too much Jack Kerouac and took it to heart, Rourke pulls it off marvelously, mostly because it seems like he’s playing himself, before all the erotic thrillers and plastic surgery. 

Also appearing in a supporting role is Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage, playing Rusty James’ frenemy Smokey, who smugly tells him that he’s too stupid to be any kind of effective gang leader. He’s right, of course: whereas The Motorcycle Boy is intelligent and quietly intense, Rusty James doesn’t have what it takes to to lead people to a gas station, let alone into a fight. He’s immature, he’s not very bright, he’s volatile, and, worst of all, he doesn’t know when to walk away from a conflict. He wants to be a leader mostly because he feels entitled to it due to who his brother is, and can’t explain why he thinks the violent rumble days were better, they just were. He speaks about them with awe and reverence, like a middle-aged man reminiscing about his college years.

With its long shadows and smoke constantly escaping from trash cans or manholes, even the daylight scenes are hard and cold, the only moments of beauty reserved for reflections of moving clouds in windows and chrome

Despite all his tough talk, Rusty James is twice grievously injured in a fight, once so seriously he has a brief out of body experience. He’s saved both times by The Motorcycle Boy, who just sort of appears out of nowhere, like someone’s shined a Bat-signal in the sky. It’s never entirely clear why The Motorcycle Boy has returned, or what he did while he was away. He claims he’s been in California, but he’s probably lying, just as he’s probably lying when he tells Rusty James that he’s recently seen their mother, who abandoned them years ago. Partially deaf and colorblind, aloof and elliptical, he’s rumored to be insane, and, despite his order that the local gangs stop fighting, no one really knows what to make of him, or what he might do. Half the town is in awe of The Motorcycle Boy, and the other half consider him a menace. “You know, we’d all be better off if you stayed gone,” the sinister Officer Patterson (William Smith) sneers, staring him down from behind his ever-present sunglasses.      

While Rusty James thinks it’s a good thing to have people so devoted to you that they’ll follow you to a river and jump in, The Motorcycle Boy doesn’t want that kind of burden, nor does he think he deserves it. “If you lead people,” he tells a perplexed Rusty James, “You have to have somewhere to go.” He’s not even much interested in being the paternal figure Rusty James desperately needs, since their father (Dennis Hopper) spends much of his time at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Oh sure, he’ll save Rusty James from a fight or two, and share an occasional anecdote about their childhoods, but he still keeps him carefully at arm’s length. If you let someone look up to you for too long, they’ll start seeing the cracks.

When The Motorcycle Boy is shot to death after breaking into a pet store and releasing the animals, Rusty James’ grief is compounded by the fact that he didn’t know him any better than he did before. There’s no baring of the souls moment, no real bonding. The closest Rusty James gets to understanding what makes his brother tick is his fascination with the Siamese fighting fish he later steals from the pet store. “I don’t think they would fight if they were in the river,” he says. “If they had room to live.” When Rusty James makes it to California at the end, getting to see the ocean that The Motorcycle Boy never saw, it might be the closest he’ll ever feel to him.

Rumble Fish Trailer:

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